A bit of America planted in the middle of GyeonggiANSAN, Gyeonggi
On a recent weekday, Lee Eun-hae rubbed her eyes as she woke up at the sound of the alarm at 7 a.m. She hurried out of her bunk bed, got dressed and ran to the gym downstairs with five of her roommates, all of whom are in seventh or eighth grade.
From the gym, 100 students from third to ninth grade followed their homeroom teachers to the dining room, where they were served pancakes, scrambled eggs, assorted cereals and milk for breakfast.
“Though I don’t like vegetables they serve here, I like that they have pancakes instead of rice for breakfast, unlike at home,” said Eun-hae, 13.
Eun-hae may sound like a typical seventh-grader at a summer camp, but she frowned in concentration and spoke hesitantly as she tried to think of the right words in English. It’s a language that she has learned from schoolbooks but never had a chance to use until now.
“Foreign teachers are very kind. I like studying here. Learning English is fun,” she said slowly.
It was her last night of a five-day stay at Ansan Camp of English Village in Gyeonggi province, which held a pilot program before today’s official opening. The English Village is a two-year project run by the provincial government to allow Koreans to be immersed in an English-only environment similar to something you’d find in an American suburb. The foundation and the government recruited foreign English teachers in Korea and used job fairs to hire others from abroad.
“We wanted a place where students can learn English as they experience and use their English ability in real life situations instead of the current method of cramming for exams,” said Hong Jong-deuk, executive director of planning and marketing at the Gyeonggi English Culture Foundation, which supervises the English Village. “The educational office of Gyeonggi province will support the district schools to send eighth graders to the five-day experience of English Village, even during the school year.”
By 2008, the foundation will build two more English Villages, one in Paju and the other in Yangpyeong, to accommodate most of the 150,000 eighth graders living in the province, 200 each week. But students from other provinces can’t join the English Village because the facility will be funded by Gyeonggi taxpayers.
Enrollment costs 330,000 won ($284) per student, but Gyeonggi province gives grants of 250,000 won, leaving only 80,000 won for the individuals to pay. For children from extremely low-income families, however, the regional government has promised exemption from fees.
“Korean families spend too much every year on private education for learning English and the methods of learning it are usually not effective,” said Sohn Hak-kyu, governor of Gyeonggi province. “We have decided to build a facility that will help students to learn the language more easily while saving money on private education like overseas programs.”
According to the Korea Consumer Protection Board, which surveyed 460 households in November and December 2003, households spent an average of 233,000 won each on private education monthly, 88,000 won of which went to English education.
Eun-hae has never gone abroad, but she said she was having a great time in Ansan English Village, because “everything is like that of a foreign country.”
The English-only rule is strictly enforced. “I have to pay a fine of one EV [English Village] dollar if I get caught speaking in Korean here,” she whispered as she used the Korean word for “fine.”
A total of 30 EV dollars, the mock paper currency, are given to students on the first day. They first go through “immigration,” at an underground plaza set up to look like the inside of an airport, then check in at a faux hotel front desk in the lobby.
With the EV dollars, the students can buy notebooks and pencils at a “general store.” Both foreign and Korean teachers act as English-speaking attendants and clerks.
During the pilot program, students were kept busy. First period started at 8:50 a.m. Eun-hae played soccer under the instruction of a P.E. teacher. Cooking class awaited in second period, where she made Polish fruit salad. Then she studied how windmills work in science class.
Some students were at a loss for words ― literally. They looked blankly at the question, “What is your name?” And some kept repeating that “it is fun,” but couldn’t say why the camp was “nice,” except that it was very clean.
“We’re tempted to talk in Korean to Korean teachers, but we can’t do that, so we end up using body language a lot,” said sixth-grader Kim Hong-pyo, who used English and Korean in talking to a reporter.
“I can proudly say that I have never seen such an idealistic English institute in the world,” said Jeffrey Jones, the head of the Gyeonggi English Culture Foundation and a former president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea.
Japan has a similar program, called “British Hill,” while Spain has its “English Town.” But Japan’s and Spain’s programs are run by private companies, which can affect the quality of its curricula because they have to pursue profits, said a spokesman for Gyeonggi’s English Village.
“This place works like any other school; you learn English naturally as you interact with foreigners while you learn things that you want to learn,” said John McNeil, of Ontario, Canada, who was leading a drama class to perform a Korean skit called “The Woodcutter and the Nymph” with an English script.
“I think the idea is unique and the best thing is that everyone is having so much fun,” said David Francis, an American drama teacher from Atlanta, Georgia. “I didn’t see any kids who were homesick yet.”
Another of the 38 foreign teachers at Ansan was Karl Boehm, a cooking teacher from Canada. He said this was a chance to teach the differences between cultures. For example: “When you don’t look a person in the eye, you are considered rude in the Western countries, but here in Korea, that’s polite,” said Mr. Boehm.
Carl Dusthimer, director of Ansan English Village, said it was a promising start. “This is the pilot week before the official opening, so we’ll be paying attention to the feedback from the staff and kids on what to improve, though we haven’t gotten any complaints so far,” he said.
by Lee Min-a
For more information, visit online at www.english-village.or.kr or call (032) 450-4364.